The Kim Jong-un–Donald Trump bonhomie at the Singapore meeting on Tuesday was in stark contrast to the disaster that Trump’s recent meeting with fellow G7 heads of state was. It is difficult, though, to say who won the optics game. Was it Trump, whose unceasing boast is that he succeeded where many of his predecessors had failed with their North Korea policy? Or was it Kim, because Trump, despite his “fire and fury” threat and a much-publicised pulling out of talks, ended up at the negotiating table? Both leaders, however, can be expected to use the meeting to pat themselves on the back, and project it as a “win” in front of their supporters—or captive audiences. Trump was quick to dub the agreement signed with Kim as “very comprehensive”. But, it could not be less so, especially given North Korea’s history of mercurial leadership.
While the commitment to new relations in the interest of “peace and prosperity” signals that Kim wants economic progress for his country—that will be easier if the US fully lifts sanctions against North Korea—the failed agreements of 1994 and 2005 are evidence of how, despite occasional ‘earnest’ protestations, peace between the two countries has been elusive. The agreement also talks of the need to establish “lasting and stable peace” in the Korean peninsula. That will first need the Korean War—in suspension since the 1953 armistice was signed—to end, with a formal treaty. This, in turn, needs China and other countries which were part of the Korean War to come to the negotiating table. Given China’s strategic interests in the region, that is unlikely to materialise soon. The agreement ‘s “complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula” proposition is where things actually become woolly—the US had so far maintained that it will settle for nothing less than complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement (CVID) of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, as pointed out by The Guardian. Kim has not committed to this. In fact, Kim’s denuclearisation promise is likely to be as concrete as Trump’s promise of “unspecified” security guarantees to North Korea. Besides, denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula actually means the US has to roll back the nuclear defence its extends to South Korea. International isolation has never been a threat for Kim—or his father and grandfather. It is Trump who has bet big with the meeting.